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This Has Nothing to Do With Baseball: Me and the Teachers

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Confession time: I do not discriminate against any fellow human on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexuality, or preference of mustard vs. ketchup on a hot dog. I even turned the other cheek when, in the winter of 1995, a know-it-all nearly started a brawl with me because he insisted the Yankees had just hired DOM Zimmer as their bench coach, not Don, and we exchanged Christmas cards for years after. If you prefer the Red Sox to the Yankees, that’s great—someone has to be a fan of other teams, or there wouldn’t be anyone for the Yankees to play.

You get it? I hold these truths to be self-evident that I’m okay and you’re okay. You do your thing, I’ll do mine, and even if I don’t always get it, I’ll try my best to respect it and stay out of the way.

Yet: Man, I have a problem with teachers.

I don't mean all teachers, because that would be a generalization, and generalizations are always weak (a statement which is in itself a generalization), but most teachers. My own experience with pre-college education was mostly terrible, if not traumatic, and watching my own children trudge through school has not done much to make me feel that the current state of the profession is a lot better than it was when I was a kid. This is especially true in my New Jersey homeland where over the last few years there has been a great deal of pressure on veteran teachers to retire before their pension benefits are cut by a starving government. As a result, the average age of my children's teachers seems to have dropped to about 23.

Cee Angi, the baseball writer and diarist, has written a memoir about the teacher who set her on the road to becoming an author. Their encounter initially invoked terror:

The more I learned about advanced English, the more I didn't want to go. It was as if those who had gone through it and survived had emerged from a sweatshop where child ghostwriters were flogged until capable of push out works of great literature, or at the very least, New York Times bestsellers. The smugness of those who survived a year of advanced English was worn like a badge of courage through the halls of SFB. The intelligence of those students was never questioned; it was just assumed that they were brilliant and well rounded. Advanced English was Harvard; everything else was Community College.

Throughout the summer, I had nightmares about English and my status as middle school elite. In my dream, Mrs. K would order me to the front of the room, and I'd stand there, chalk in hand, expecting to write something on the board. Instead, between hacking coughs she would croak, "Cee is too dumb to be here!" and hand me a slip of paper that confirmed my demotion and sent me reeling towards the door, the smartest kids in school laughing and pointing as I fled. In contrast, the hallway that received the condemned little girl would be empty and silent but for the squeaking of my Mary-Janes on the peeling linoleum floors and the sounds of my ragged breathing as I slunk away, defeated, cast out from among the high-achieving authors of room 4F. The death-march from 4F to the room in which my now-fellow remedial idiots were penned always stretched on for longer than it possibly could have given the short distance involved, but then, hallways are always longer when they're punitive.

Ms. Angi's relationship with her teacher eventually turned positive, to her great benefit and, one suspects, to the benefit of them both. Mine rarely did. One of the most controversial things I ever said in the history of the Pinstriped Bible was a comment I made about Don Mattingly's potential as a hitting coach when he first joined Joe Torre's staff. "My own educational experience, which I assume to be typical," I said, "is that the ratio of good teachers to mediocrities hacking it out for a paycheck is approximately one out of ten."

Every couple of years, I have cause to review that comment, especially now that I'm a parent. Each time I have, I've alluded to one of my foundational educational experiences: "At six years old I encountered a teacher who was physically abusive (not to me, thank goodness, but to my classmates)." In the age of Penn State, it seems odd that I was so coy about the experience. The full story: when I was six going on seven, I transferred from Montessori School to public school. The former was a nurturing, positive environment where it was cool if you put crayons between your toes and spent all day drawing on the walls. In comparison, the latter was like being incarcerated at Guantanamo.

My first teacher was a leathery, bat-faced woman named Mrs. Gray. Mrs. Gray had an anger-management problem and the kind of bravery that lets a grown woman rage at powerless creatures such as small children. On roughly the first moment of the first day she began angrily shouting at the top of her lungs and basically never stopped. She would get right in your face and let go. I cannot recall the exact nature of what she said, but I know it was loud, cruel, and generally questioned your intelligence or competence or right to exist. Essentially, if you, at six years old, failed to grasp some content she had taught and did not execute perfectly, you were not worthy of living.

No one had ever acted that way around me before, and from then on, I was a nervous, quivering wreck whenever I was in her presence. This created a vicious cycle: the more she screamed, the more nervous I was. The more nervous I was, the less I could perform academically. The less I could perform academically, the more she screamed. That was when the hitting started.

Mrs. Gray never hit me, but she laid hands on other students as a matter of course. One of the most vivid memories of my life, all these years later, is one of my classmates talking to the kid next to him at a time when we were supposed to be silently working. He didn't realize she was coming up behind him until she had taken him by the collar and pulled hard, flipping his chair and throwing him to the ground. "DO YOU HEAR ANYONE TALKING?" she screamed. She clutched the back of his shirt in her fist and dragged him around the room on his ass, shouting that again and again, while I cowered in my seat, shaking violently.

I never had another teacher quite like Mrs. Gray, but that experience set the tone for the rest of my public school experience, right up through college. I had some teachers who were transiently positive, but I had many more who were hostile, incompetent, or both, and had no idea and little interest in figuring out how to reach a student who had some ability but, as a matter of self-defense, had shut down years earlier and no longer had much interest in participating. Instead, they just piled on.

By that point I was complicit, I understand that, but it was the Mrs. Grays of the world who had lost me. I loved learning, but I hated school, and that was my tragedy. Writing, something I could always do, began as my declaration of freedom, my act of revenge. I'm pleased that Ms. Angi arrived at our profession via a happier path, but I envy her the experience.